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3.20.2011 1:00AM

The Universe Is Haunted: Reflections on the "Nature of Nature"


In the history of modern propaganda with its technique of the Big Lie, it's hard to think of a brazen untruth more successful in shaping opinion than the one that equates intelligent design with Christian fundamentalist creationism. Almost as influential is the related lie that there is no serious scientific controversy over Darwinism, that main support pillar of contemporary materialist or naturalist doctrine.

Anyone who's still unclear on either of these points should take a moment and just weigh in his hand The Nature of Nature, a massive and massively learned new 900-page volume of essays. In chapter after chapter, proponents and critics of naturalism and Darwinism, scientists and philosophers, hammer away at each other at the highest levels of debate.

In hanging the creationist label on intelligent design, Darwinists enjoy such success partly because those on the ID side seldom stop to paint a broad, encompassing, and accessible portrait of what exactly is going on in nature. ID theorists painstakingly make their case that a designer has shaped the natural world, but they tend to do so on a small canvas. Each looks at the evidence for design in a particular discipline or at a particular and telling deficit in Darwinian thought. The Nature of Nature stands out for its monumental comprehensiveness.

An impressively diverse group, including three Nobel Prize-winners alongside leading intelligent-design theorists, the contributors debate the ultimate implications of the evidence emerging from biology, physics, cosmology, mathematics, neuroscience, and other fields. The book makes it possible for a reader to try to imagine the big picture.

Naturalism is the idea that material nature is all there is in the cosmos, to the exclusion of spiritual or otherwise non-material beings or realities. As University of Notre Dame philosopher Alvin Plantinga points out here, that is an idea more radical, with deeper and more depressing ramifications, than mere atheism. An atheist could disbelieve in God while affirming the existence of, for example, Hegel's Absolute or Aristotle's impersonal Unmoved Mover. A naturalist could affirm neither.

Yet naturalism itself possesses aspects of a faith, performing "the cognitive or worldview function of religion." This moves Plantinga to grant it "the status of an honorary religion."

Naturalism is also the standard worldview in academia. That explains the origins of this book in a scandalous act of censorship at Baylor University. In 2000, the Baylor faculty senate panicked and shut down a brand-new intelligent-design research center on campus. That was just days after the center staged a conference on "The Nature of Nature." The conference allowed believers in Darwinian theory and related forms of naturalism to confront ID advocates and other heretics face to face. The Nature of Nature collects many of those original presentations and a wealth of new material.

The organizers were a pair of Baylor scholars who also edited this book, mathematician William Dembski and philosopher of science Bruce Gordon. They have since moved on to other academic posts, including as senior fellows with the Discovery Institute's Center for Science and Culture. Their think tank, the Michael Polanyi Center for Complexity, Information and Design, lives on only in memory.

Terrified by the prospect of being thought to harbor so-called creationists, Baylor's faculty could not countenance a lively debate about naturalism's scientific credentials, a debate that threatened to embarrass professors by stirring up memories of the university's Texas Baptist roots.

In fact, the impression you take away from the essays in The Nature of Nature that are critical of naturalism completely defies any sectarian categorization. In their extracurricular lives, many of the contributors would not deny holding religious beliefs, much as conference participants on the other side of the argument, like physicist and Nobel laureate Steven Weinberg or historian of science Michael Shermer, aggressively espouse atheism. Yet the picture of nature that rises from these essays isn't necessarily a religious one at all.

You could put it this way: The universe is haunted.

Haunted not by ghosts but by a source of ancient, unseen, immaterial agency. Whether agents or one Agent, you simply can't tell from the scientific evidence. Alfred Russel Wallace (1823-1913), co-discoverer of evolutionary theory with Charles Darwin and no one's idea of a Christian, ultimately concluded that the directing activity of what he called cosmic "intelligences" or "angels" was needed to fully explain the origin and development of life. Their role was to give natural selection something to select. The idea that angels perform such a function goes back to Maimonides, who integrated Aristotle with rabbinic tradition on the subject, and to other, later medieval theologians.

Whatever its nature, such an intelligent force must have set in motion the 13.75-billion-year history of the cosmos and guided the unfolding of life from its origin 3.7 billion years ago.

As astrophysicist Guillermo Gonzalez argues here, the formation of a habitable universe, and a planet fit for scientific exploration, required extraordinarily high degrees of what he calls, respectively, "global" and "local" fine-tuning of physical constants and environmental conditions. Speculative cosmologies have sought to avoid the theological implications of this -- that something had us in mind from the beginning -- by spinning fables of a "multiverse" where the existence of an infinite number of universes explains away the seeming miracle.

In his essay "Balloons on a String: A Critique of Multiverse Cosmology," Bruce Gordon shows how "in their theophobic flight, scientific materialists have found it necessary to affirm a universe in which anything can happen...without a sufficient causal antecedent and for no rhyme or reason." He asks, "So who believes in miracles now?"

Yet naturalists must believe in such things, writes Dr. Gordon, since the alternative is "transcendent intelligent agency as the only sufficient cause, and thus the only reasonable explanation," of our being in existence. As Leonard Susskind, Stanford physicist and prime retailer of the "string landscape" cosmology, candidly admits, "Without any explanation of nature's fine-tunings we will be hard pressed to answer the ID critics."

In Dr. Gonzalez's terms, the design being enacted in nature can be observed from the most global level -- that of the universe as a whole -- to the most local, the living cell with its programming coded in DNA, and even down to the very finest level of detail that physical existence has to offer, that of quantum mechanics.

A number of the contributors emphasize that the real problem with evolutionary schemes lies not with the observation that life has a long history, that the forms it takes have been continually changing, that types of creatures descend from one another even including man himself. Nor does the problem lie in the uncontroversial and unenlightening observation that life that is poorly suited for propagation tends not to propagate, or that life better suited to spread its seed has the superior chance of doing so.

The naturalist account of life's evolution has its crippling flaw in the assumption that random variation, later explained by neo-Darwinism as genetic mutation, provides the adequate raw material from which natural selection can select. In "The Limits of Non-Intelligent Explanations in Molecular Biology," Lehigh University biochemist Michael Behe considers the empirical data gleaned from field and lab studies of human beings, malaria parasites, E. coli bacteria, and the HIV virus. He concludes that random mutation has a strict limit to its power.

Such variation can aid survival when the genetic code suffers a loss of minor functionality that happens also to confer a marginal benefit. But without guidance or direction, building up function from scratch is a very different proposition. It lies almost entirely beyond the competence of random variation. Among other problems, before genuinely new functionality could arise, the accumulating losses of function would degrade the creature's genome to the point of exhausting any hope that it could survive at all, much less continue evolving.

Darwinists brush away difficulties like this with the assurance that given plenty of time, undirected evolution can accomplish anything. Molecular biologist Douglas Axe does the math and concludes otherwise. DNA codes for the production of proteins from the precisely sequenced folding of amino-acid chains. This process of folding results ultimately in the construction of the astonishingly complex molecular machinery that makes the cell function.

In the sort of concrete, realistic terms that Darwinists resist, Dr. Axe measures the almost inconceivably vast space of possible combinations of amino acids that would have to be sampled by a process of undirected, random mutation. When calculated this way, what emerges is an unconquerable troll beneath the bridge on which Darwinists blithely trample. Axe designates it mildly as the "sampling problem."

He concludes that "it appears highly implausible for the protein structures we see in biology to have been built up from tiny ancestral structures in a way that: 1) employed only simple mutation events, 2) progressed from one well-formed structure to another, and 3) adequately performed the essential tasks of biology at each step."

Writing with Baylor University's Robert Marks, a pioneer in the field of computational intelligence, William Dembski states a fundamental law of nature that explains why, if undirected by an intelligent agent, the inscribing of biological information in the genome should face such impossibly daunting obstacles.

Stanford mathematician Keith Devlin has suggested that information may be "a basic property of the universe, alongside matter and energy (and ultimately interconvertible with them)." The Law of Conservation of Information, formulated by Dembski and Marks, says as much in formal terms, holding that information can only be imported into a natural system and shuffled around. Where we find information erupting, as in the genome, much as when we find matter or energy popping into existence at the Big Bang, it must have been seeded there from outside.

From some perspectives the force responsible for this seems immanent in nature, from others totally transcendent. It wouldn't be surprising if the seat of ultimate intelligence and will transcended not just the natural, physical universe but our strivings to characterize it in human terms.

No contributor to The Nature of Nature ventures to say anything beyond this, from the scientific evidence, about the identity or qualities of the designing agent. However, a few writers seek to clear up related confusions that gum up the debate about ID.

Philosopher of science Stephen Meyer addresses the objection that we cannot say by what mechanism a designer might direct the evolution of the cosmos and of life. Naturalists insist that science deals only with physical mechanisms. If intelligent design theory can't specify one, it has to be ruled out of consideration. But as Meyer points out, nobody doubts the scientific bona fides of Isaac Newton's gravitation theory because Newton could specify no mechanism by which gravity functions. In modern science, no one knows by what mechanism, if any, the mind translates consciousness and will into physical action.

The operations of quantum mechanics remain even more opaque. There, no mechanism seems possible even in principle. This leads Bruce Gordon into the most startling essay in the book, "A Quantum-Theoretic Argument against Naturalism." As he seems to show from an exacting proof that I'm not in a position to evaluate, the mathematical description of quantum phenomena suggests that material substance itself may be the illusory projection of immaterial mind or minds. Gordon notes in passing the similarity of this view to the "immaterialism" of two 18th-century theologians, George Berkeley and Jonathan Edwards.

Biblical religion, unlike materialist doctrines, can possibly be reconciled with a picture of reality and the cosmos like the one drawn in these contributions. That's especially so if the Bible is understood as pointing, by the medium of a cryptic parable expressed at many levels in the Scriptural text, to an ancient and hidden agent different from many familiar images we may carry in our minds of what God is like.

If anything, the image of nature that emerges here has a mystical aspect. This is notwithstanding that the book is, on the whole, a fairly dry read. Its persuasive power lies in the understated, un-poetic way it suggests what it does. For example, on the surface, what could be more un-poetic and un-mystical than the concept of information, biological or otherwise?

Dembski and Marks define the generation of information as the act of eliminating possibilities. To illustrate, they give the example of formulating a sentence of prose. That task involves sifting the vast space of possible combinations of letters, almost all of them meaningless gibberish, for a combination that yields not only meaning but the meaning you intend. They quote G.K. Chesterton: "Every act of will is an act of self-limitation. To desire action is to desire limitation. In that sense every act is an act of self-sacrifice. When you choose anything, you reject everything else."

But this was not Chesterton's original insight. It has a much older lineage. Jewish mystical tradition speaks of God's initiating the creation of the world, accomplished through the precise arrangement of letters of speech, by exactly such an act of self-limiting. The Hebrew term is tzimtzum, meaning contraction or reduction. By this means God opened up room for his creativity to act in, carved from the space of limitless possibilities.

What, then, about the libel that stampeded the faculty of Baylor University to squash a daring attempt by colleagues to explore the evidence for design in nature? What about the "ID equals creationism" myth, or the "no controversy about evolution" bugaboo?

Say whatever else about it that you will, the way of thought traced here by the critics of naturalism bears no relation to anything honestly called creationism. And the fact that there is a very serious debate going on is simply undeniable. Such malignant clichés, popular with professors and polemicists, are crushed under the scholarly weight of this volume.



It is respectfully suggested that a discussion of our cosmic origins demands a passionate, determined exploration of ultimate questions: Why are we here? Why does reality exist? Where did reality come from? It is submitted that reality had to come from somewhere, that there must be meaning and purpose behind it all: not out of wishful thinking, but because the fact that consciousness has emerged from the void is self-evident evidence in favor of meaning and purpose.

Please closely examine the punctuation mark im­mediately at the end of this sentence . The moment before the Big Bang, the entire uni­verse – everything you see outside of you and within you – existed within a point less than the size of a punctuation mark period. Logic suggests – indeed, Darwin’s own method of scientific reasoning has as a key principle – that if you’re trying to explain something in the remote past, you should invoke a cause or causes which are known to produce the effect that you’re trying to explain. It is therefore submitted that the most rational way to perceive the Big Bang is as a seed: a teleological, autotelic cosmic seed, with disembodied free will/consciousness as its fruit.

There is a sense in which the multiverse hypothesis is intended to make cosmology the new opiate of the masses; there's no need to fret too much about what happens here, right now - just relax, enjoy yourself, and don't think too deeply. After all, if you don't get what you want in this universe, a parallel you will get it, is getting it, or has gotten it in at least one alternate universe. There is also a sense in which the multiverse hypothesis is really the mechanistic atheist's heaven. Every possible event has happened, is happening, or will happen in every possible combination: in one universe you're a Beethoven, in another you're a Stalin, in yet another a flea! You can almost see the egalitarians and materialists and Marxists and reductionists popping the cork out of the champagne bottle.

Darwinism/methodological naturalism states that given enough time, mechanism can bring about life, sentience, and consciousness. And what is the multiverse hypothesis if not a spatial variant of evolutionism's time game? The multiverse hypothesis contends that given enough space, mechanism can bring about life, sentience, and consciousness. But what are the elements, forces, laws, and entities that will manifest themselves within space-time, and how and why will they self-assemble as they proceed to do so?

Darwinism (understood as ateleological reality) and the mulitverse hypothesis seem to have in common a prior commitment to mechanism, i.e., to the doctrine that holds that natural processes (as of life) to be mechanically determined and capable of complete explanation by the laws of physics and chemistry. Darwinism and the multiverse hypothesis are both inimical to teleology; indeed, Darwinism and the multiverse hypothesis seem suspiciously crafted to eliminate any role whatsoever for teleology. Darwinism maintains that natural selection and random mutation can bring about life, sentience, and consciousness; the multiverse hypothesis purportedly eliminates the need for an intelligent Creator: together, Darwinism and the multiverse hypothesis are the twin pillars of atheistic mechanism – ultimately there is nothing but matter and time and energy and randomness and space.

Natural selection operates on entities that possess some kind of a "survival" drive, or impetus. How could the radiation released by the Big Bang self-organize itself into the visible universe? Sir Roger Penrose maintains that an incredibly high degree of "fine-tuning" (i.e., amazingly low entropy) existed in the organization of the initial universe: how and why would the visible universe emerge from a random expansion of space-time? Randomized radiation and inanimate matter do not have a "survival" drive, or impetus; to even suggest otherwise seems to risk resorting to teleology in some form, or "essences" of some kind, both of which mechanism forbids; until life somehow arises, natural selection has no self-organizational impetus to sculpt: why would inorganic, lifeless, unorganized, randomized radiation structure and contextualize itself so as to induce life, sentience, and consciousness? The response of the materialist-atheist is invariably some form of mechanism, i.e., the answer is somehow to be found in the laws of physics and chemistry. But mechanism states that there is no Creator to write the laws of physics and chemistry. Why then do these natural laws operate as they do? Why do they have the parameters that they do? Why do they interact and manifest themselves so as to integrate themselves into a cosmos that can then in turn induce life, sentience, and consciousness? The life engendering balancing of the laws and forces of nature seems to fly in the face of the randomness required by mechanism: i.e., a stacked deck isn't random. The existence, the hierarchical ordering and meaning imposed on each card in the deck, and the rules required to give card games meaning, fly in the face of randomness. To say that life arose by "accident" or via random processes seems analogous to stating that someone pulled the nine of clubs by "accident" or via random processes. It seems self-evident that life had to have a teleological reality in which in to self-generate and then self-replicate; the deck has to exist before someone can draw a card from it.

What Darwinism (ateleological reality) stands for is the proposition that life can blindly arise by random processes, and thereafter self-complexify via natural selection operating on random mutations. But Darwinism has a problem with explaining how life began, as well as with explaining the origin of the bio-friendly cosmic laws and forces of nature: enter the multiverse hypothesis; the multiverse hypothesis seems to have been designed by mechanistic atheists in an attempt to sidestep the question of the origin of life and the question of the cause of the bio-friendly cosmic laws and forces of nature; it seems popular now among mechanistic atheists (ateleological reality adherents) to maintain the existence of an infinite (or near infinite) number of universes (i.e., the multiverse), and but of course it follows that one or more of these universes will emerge in a form capable of generating and supporting life - and voila! - Darwinism's (ateleological reality) just-so story is buffeted by an untestable, question-begging supposition. Evolution understood as change over time and even as common ancestry is rational and is clearly demonstrated by empirical evidence, but the Darwinist/evolutionist (ateleological reality) position that everything can be explained by mechanism seems wrong: it flies in the face of facts, logic, reason, and even science itself.

There is a sense in which Darwinism (ateleogical reality) represents the mechanization of life. But is the cosmos really best characterized as a watch or a machine? Is it possible the cosmos is more akin to a living organism (or perhaps a living "multiverse" super-organism). What is the multiverse - if it exists - but self-replication on the grandest scale? The multiverse hypothesis, as explicated by ateleological reality adherents, is the mechanization of the cosmos, and as such it protects Darwinism's exposed flanks. Darwinism (ateleological reality) does not permit teleology, and the multiverse hypothesis does not require an intelligent Creator. Ateleological reality (mechanism) is a paradigmatic-hegemonic, de jure ideology, imposed by the reigning paradigm's Power-Structure, designed to render teleological reality (vitalism) unthinkable. Mechanism rules out teleology a priori, and anything and everything is interpreted through mechanism's unsubstantiated assertions and self-proclaimed parameters.

Darwin wrote On the Origin of Species, but he didn't copyright reality. Darwin recognized that change occurs over time, and he saw nature's incrementalism from the perspective of methodological naturalism. But is methodological naturalism the only perspective from which to view nature's incrementalism? The emergence of life, sentience, and consciousness, the bio-friendly laws and forces of nature, as well as the progression of the cosmos from a seed-like singularity to today's visible universe, suggest that perhaps nature's incrementalism actually is goal-based teleology. Why should the Darwinian patina of metaphysical nihilism be the final word concerning nature's incrementalism? Why is the statement: "Ultimately, everything is an accident" any more or less scientific than the statement: "Ultimately, everything is goal-oriented"? Why must the brain be viewed exclusively as a piece of electrified meat? Perhaps the brain is an organ, a portal to higher dimensions, to disembodied Consciousness, but mankind, still with primordial mud on their boots, are unable to perceive this supra-dimensional bioelectrical teleology of the matter-body-brain-mind-consciousness-spirit continuum. As Aristotle's teleology demonstrates, thinking is godlike: abstract contemplation is the highest end. Plato's Republic and Timaeus, St. Augustine's notion of evil as distance from God, Aristotle's view on biological reproduction as somehow participating in the divine: none of these thinkers or their ideas would seem to dispute evolution understood as change over time, or perhaps even as common ancestry – but to deny teleology?

At this point in history there seems to be no way of knowing - in an ultimate sense - if reality, as mankind are capable of perceiving it, is the result of randomness or purposefulness. But as intelligent, conscious beings, mankind have a duty to consider all the best possible evidence and, based upon that evidence, set forth the soundest hypothesis they can - without appeal to revelation. The seed is somehow impelled to become the plant; the electron is somehow brought to orbit the nucleus - and what does intelligent imagination suggest to us what the mind might somehow be induced to do and become? Who's to say that everything - reality - is a happenstance confluence of blind mechanism, sifting through an eternity of randomized ripples? Perhaps rather reality is the sprouting of Beauty - a symphonious cosmic garden - and not a cacophonous materialistic hellhole. Perhaps the Big Bang singularity was a seed, and not a random expansion of matter-energy space-time. Cosmologists and physicists generally agree that the entire visible universe expanded from a singularity much smaller than a pea. The atoms composing your body are stardust. Consciousness has quite literally emerged from the void.

Does existence have meaning or is reality mean­ingless? Is everything inside of you and outside of you, from quarks to quasars, all the result of random, acciden­tal happenstance? Is the exquisite, life-consciousness engendering balancing of the cosmic forces of nature a fluke? Could reality as we perceive it have manifested itself into existence on its own accord, from a singular­ity or from nothing? The multiverse hypothesis does not seem to resolve the issue, because the multiverse hypothesis is not dispositive: it’s not falsifiable, it violates Occam’s razor, and it begs the question (see, for example, Sir Antony Flew’s There Is a God: How the World’s Most Notorious Atheist Changed His Mind). Moreover, even if – and that’s an awfully large if – there is a multiverse, we can never know whether the other universes too are teeming with life processes, and even if there is a multiverse, we’re still faced with the question of what set it in motion, and even if there is a multiverse, how do we know life was not teleologically intended to seed its other constitu­ent universes too? Furthermore, there seems to be no way to know with reasonable certainty precisely what happened before the Big Bang, nor likewise to know what, if anything, comes after the heat death of the uni­verse (or, alternatively, what, if anything, comes after the “Big Crunch”). Many of the world’s foremost sci­entists (cosmologists, physicists, etc.) have developed a theory that the universe-Creation occurred from a singularity or from nothing. Furthermore, the evidence suggests that the Big Bang brought forth an integrated, teleologi­cal reality-totality capable of inducing self-generating and self-replicating sentience and consciousness.

It is respectfully submitted that the Big Bang was not a random expansion of space-time matter-energy (i.e., it was not an event analogous to a “bomb” “exploding”); rather, it was an ordered ex­pansion of space-time matter-energy (i.e., it was an event analogous to a “seed” “sprouting”): therefore, it did not “explode” – it sprouted. As to who or what “planted” it, there is no way to know. Nevertheless, Aristotle’s notion of the unmoved Mover (or God, if you prefer) is a sound hypothesis. Therefore, adherence to a theistic-spiritualistic-teleological paradigm is just as, if not more, sound than is adherence to an atheistic-materialistic-evolutionist paradigm; note please the use of the term evolutionist: evolution of course is true, scientific, and undeniable. Evolutionism, on the other hand, is the philosophy of nihilism: evolutionism is nothing more than atheist metaphysics.

Perhaps Darwin didn’t per­ceive the larger, all-encompassing order – the layered, nestled, hierarchical space-time matter-energy bioelec­trical harmonic webbed nexuses of holonic planes and dimensions – in which the processes of evolution un­fold, without which evolution could not engender ever more complex life and consciousness: but for the proto-order somehow embedded in the Big Seed, blind, random evolu­tionism seems incapable of producing anything other than chaos. Evolution seems more a cosmic process, initiated by whatever entity/force begot the "Big Seed"; it seems undeniable that the cosmos has gradually, incrementally self-organized - from the very small to the very large, and that we are a teleologically unfolding part of that gradual, incremental, self-organized expansion.

It is respectfully submitted that this perspective successfully defends the proposition that adherence to a paradigm of theism-spiritualism-teleology is just as, if not more, sound than is adherence to a paradigm of atheism-materialism-evolutionism.

Even if we are spared destruction by war, our lives will have to change if we want to save life from self-destruction. We cannot avoid revising the fundamental definitions of human life and human society. Is it true that man is above everything? Is there no Superior Spirit above him? Is it right that man’s life and society’s activities have to be determined by material expansion in the first place? Is it permissible to promote such expansion to the detriment of our spiritual integrity?

If the world has not come to its end, it has approached a major turn in history, equal in importance to the turn from the Middle Ages to the Renaissance. It will exact from us a spiritual upsurge, we shall have to rise to a new height of vision, to a new level of life where our physical nature will not be cursed as in the Middle Ages, but, even more importantly, our spiritual being will not be trampled upon as in the Modern era.

This ascension will be similar to climbing onto the next anthropologic stage. No one on earth has any other way left but – upward.

Alexandr Solzhenitsyn From “A World Split Apart,” delivered at Harvard Class Day Afternoon Exercises, Thursday, June 8, 1978

Just ordered it! I've been anticipating this for a while ever since Dembski mentioned it on Uncommon Descent. Glad to see such a diverse set of contributions whether it be on the pro-ID side or non-ID (e.g. Michael Shermer).

I haven't finished the book but I like it so far. Gordon's review of the history dispels the science vs. religion myth. It's a detailed, well documented and rather lengthy "book" with a big book but worth the effort. I'm also re-reading Anthony Flew's book “There is no/a God” I found an interesting point in Appendix A. This is written by Roy Abraham Varghese concerning the New Atheist, Richard Dawkins contention that given the chemical ingredients plus an infinite amount of time and anything becomes possible, solution to the origen of life. Varghese adds “Given this type of reasoning, which is better described as an audacious exercise in superstition, anything we desire should exist somewhere if we just “invoke the magic of large numbers.” Unicorns or the elixir of youth, even if “staggeringly improbable,” are bound to occur “against all intuition.” The only requirement is “a chemical model” that “need only predict” these occurring “on one planet in a billion billion.”

I like it! This goes as well for the million monkeys given a typewriter plus infinite time coming up with something like Shakespeare. “Superstition” is right on. It certainly isn't science.

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